Take a Savage Journey with Blast-Off Burlesque and the Plaza Theatre as TABOO LA-LA presents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

Posted on: Sep 17th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LApresents FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998); Dir. Terry Gilliam; Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro; Saturday, September 28 @ 10 p.m. (pre-show cocktails at 9 p.m.); Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s time for Blast-Off Burlesque to tempt us with TABOO LA-LA at the Plaza Theatre! This time we venture into Bat Country with Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS!

It’s easy to celebrate Dr. Hunter S. Thompson for all the wrong reasons. FAR too many people see him only as a caricature: senses blazingly altered by some high-octane combination of hard drugs and bourbon, firing his guns at anything that dares blink in and out of his peripheral vision and ranting unintelligibly at imaginary phantasms. For these people, he’s become a counterculture hero not because of his accomplishments or the words he’s written, but because of a persona.

Sure, it’s a persona that he called into existence and encouraged to a large extent. Why? Because, goddammit, you need a larger-than-life personality to stand up next to those works of his. You can’t be some milquetoast beat reporter and deliver epic pieces of immersive journalism like “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” “Freak Power in the Rockies” or “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Nor can you be a typical Washington Beltway insider and compose the incredible series of articles that would eventually make up FEAR AND LOATHING: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72, perhaps the greatest piece of political journalism ever written. No, you’ve got to be a daredevil. You’ve got to be a shaman, using sacramental substances to achieve the frenzied mental state needed to venture into the heart of darkness and divine the inner essence of a situation. You’ve got to be the kind of drug-crazed madman who is unafraid to sacrifice accuracy on the altar of journalism to summon forth the Elder Gods of Truth.

And if you’re not that person, then you need to invent that person and become that person.

Which brings us to Raoul Duke and his journey with his personal attorney, Doctor Gonzo, into the godforsaken land of Las Vegas in 1971—the story of which would become Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS: A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM.

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp find FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Thompson’s tale is actually a portmanteau of two trips into the desert city with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and Chicano activist. The first was intended to be a retreat for the two of them to discuss an article Thompson was writing about the death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. Thompson used an invitation from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to write a series of photo captions about the Mint 500 motorcycle race as an excuse, and the two of them descended onto the city.

250 words. That’s all they wanted.

Instead, he spent 36 hours straight, “feverishly writing in my notebook,” describing the pair’s wild adventures in Las Vegas and creating the expansive first part of the novel. And then, after the insane experience they undertook, they went back. Thompson took an assignment from ROLLING STONE to report on the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs held a few weeks later in Vegas, and further explored an idea that manifested during the first trip: that the rebellion of the 1960s had failed, and that the American Dream was now manifest in the crass, loud and materialistic oasis of Las Vegas.

Thompson combined the two trips into one story, which ROLLING STONE published as a two-part serial illustrated by Ralph Steadman, and which was later compiled into a novel. In creating what he admitted was “an essentially fictional framework,” Thompson assigned himself and Acosta pseudonyms: Raoul Duke (a nom de plume frequently used by Thompson and originally used as his byline for the ROLLING STONE serialization) and Doctor Gonzo. As for the book itself, it’s hard to say how much of what is written about is strictly accurate. It’s easy to say that the whole thing is true. What may have appeared at first as a wacky drug-fueled adventure turned into a work mournful of the failure of the ‘60s revolution, furious at the insane excess of artifice and celebration of the futile pursuit of money that is Las Vegas, and aghast that Vegas survived the revolution to stand in representation of the American Dream.

For years, the thing was regarded as being as unfilmable as NAKED LUNCH. Surreal, hallucinatory and depicting any number of illegal and violent acts by its protagonists, it just seemed to be too much to exist on a movie screen. Sure, they tried. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both gave it a shot, but only one movie wound up being made in the wake of those early efforts. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (which attempted to shoehorn “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” and LAS VEGAS into one movie) starred Bill Murray, and was widely panned, particularly by Thompson himself. He praised Murray’s performance, but said the movie was saddled with “a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script.”

A direct adaptation eluded filmmakers for years, but that ended in 1998. After Rhino Films went through protracted tangling with director Alex Cox (whose screenplay Thompson viscerally hated), Terry Gilliam was brought on board to helm the film adaptation of the novel, and his surreal vision was a perfect match for the material. Though Gilliam had never used drugs, he researched the effects of all the chemicals used by the characters to create a series of visual effects that would mirror how the drugs would have affected their perception. The end result, while not exactly matching the horrifically ugly darkness of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations, stands on its own as a fully-formed take on Thompson’s subject matter.

Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro were cast as Duke and Gonzo, respectively, and both underwent extensive preparation for their roles. Del Toro gained 45 pounds and immersed himself in studying the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and Johnny Depp spent four months living with Thompson at his Woody Creek ranch. Depp assembled his wardrobe from Thompson’s clothes of the time, wore a pendant of Thompson’s that was a gift from Acosta, and shaved his head in imitation of Thompson’s own male pattern baldness. The research and work paid off in spades. Depp and del Toro inhabit their roles perfectly. While they may come across as slightly cartoonish exaggerations of both Thompson and Acosta, it must be remembered that the Duke and Gonzo of the novel are slightly cartoonish exaggerations of Thompson and Acosta.

More gonzo antics by Depp and Del Toro in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Terry Gilliam stated that he wanted the film to be polarizing—that he wanted it to be known as both the greatest and worst film of all time. And, thusly, it sharply divided critics: it currently holds a 50% average on the review aggregator ROTTENTOMATOES.com. Meanwhile, the film was a huge commercial failure. Filmgoers wanting to see the handsome Depp and del Toro got presented with a pair that were deliberately ugly. Filmgoers wanting to see a modern drug comedy wound up with something less a comedy and more a tragedy. And filmgoers wanting to see the Thompson perpetuated by DOONESBURY’s Uncle Duke character (and practically every other mass media depiction of the author) wound up with the only-slightly-fictionalized Thompson of the book, which is far closer to Thompson the man than Thompson the caricature.

Thankfully, due to home video releases, the film has built up a large, faithful audience, and it’s that crowd which is invited to the Plaza Theatre as Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO LA-LA brings us a screening of Gilliam’s adaptation. The pre-show kicks off at 9 p.m. with complimentary cocktails served up in the lobby, and then things kick into high gear with a live stage show from Blast-Off Burlesque featuring special guests Tom Jones, Elvis (somehow I’m guessing that these might not be the actual Tom Jones and Elvis) and Batastic. There will also be a Gonzo Costume contest and an Ether Walk contest with prizes from Libertine and the Cherry Blossom Salon, as well an art display of Lucy’s Barbara Streisand portraits! So come down and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 1990s while celebrating Hunter S. Thompson for all the right reasons.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Who You Gonna Call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Landmark Midtown Art Cinema Gets Some Frightfully Funny Midnight Madness Fri. Aug 2 and Sat. Aug 3

Posted on: Jul 31st, 2013 By:

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984); Dir. Ivan Reitman; Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts; August 2 & 3 @ Midnight; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Midnight Madness has descended upon the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema! This time, they’re bringing you one of the greatest comedies of the 1980s, the spook-stravaganza, GHOSTBUSTERS!

Sometimes you need a film that challenges your belief system. Sometimes you need a film that will rouse you to action. Sometimes you need a film that makes you ask tough questions about the world we live in.

And sometimes you just need a film that’s only out to entertain you in the biggest possible way. Few films accomplish this like GHOSTBUSTERS.

Three New York City parapsychologists—Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)—after being kicked out of their tony Columbia University gigs, decide to monetize their research by setting up a “ghost extermination” service out of an old firehouse. Business is slow, but a successful capture at the Sedgewick Hotel leads to huge demand for their services and rock-star status in the city. Meanwhile, they are hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment is being haunted by a entity known as Zuul. Her neighbor, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), becomes possessed by Zuul’s companion demigod, Vinz Clortho. That would be bad enough, but the arrival of these two beings on this plane, along with the rise in supernatural phenomena, signals the coming destruction of this planet at the hands of Sumerian deity Gozer the Gozerian. Assisted by new hire Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), the team must try to find a way to stop the apocalyptic plans of Gozer and round up the hordes of suddenly-freed spirits plaguing NYC.

Yeah, I know. It reads as incredibly complicated and far-fetched, and peppered with names that sound ripped from some late-night Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But frankly, none of this matters because all this mythological-sounding hoosafudge is just there to be in service to the kind of inspired, wacky comedy that was the stock-in-trade of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray at the time. Sure, it’s a movie about ghosts, but there’s no sentimentality in their treatment of them (unlike, say, Peter Jackson’s similarly-themed THE FRIGHTENERS) and not even any real fright involved in their treatment. The ghosts on parade are rarely even remotely spooky: they’re just neon-green-colored pranksters for the most part. And even the agent of the ultimate destruction of humankind gets played for laughs at the very end. It’s the direct spawn of Bob Hope’s 1942 comedy THE GHOST BREAKERS and the Bowery Boys’ 1946 farce SPOOK BUSTERS.

GHOSTBUSTERS sports one of the great comic screenplays. Tightly constructed, it never spins wildly out of control the way that Aykroyd’s THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) does, but his flights of fancy elevate the reality-based comedy that his co-writer Harold Ramis frequently deals in. Ramis grounds Aykroyd, while Aykroyd provides Ramis with an excuse to play in a more fantastic milieu. And the entire process is aided by Murray’s keen sense of improvisational skills in performance. Tonally speaking, the movie is probably closest to director Ivan Reitman’s previous collaboration with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, STRIPES (1981). Like that film, GHOSTBUSTERS is primarily centered on the semi-improvised performance of Murray and the comic chemistry of the team around him.

Bill Murray examines a possessed Sigourney Weaver in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

The downside to this approach is that brilliant comic actors like Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd get overshadowed by Murray’s dominating presence (Ramis, as the deadpan Egon, makes a more lasting impression than Aykroyd), but they work solidly as a team in support of—and providing the necessary “straight man” grounding for—Murray’s performance. And without their sense of camaraderie, the whole film would likely fall apart. Standing out and holding their own against Murray, though, are Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. Moranis deftly works his nebbish character (honed in his days at SCTV and given a more sympathetic treatment in 1986’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) against type as Louis becomes possessed by Vinz Clortho, and makes it seem just through the physicality of his acting as if his tiny frame is an ill-fitting suit for some huge and monstrous beast. Sigourney Weaver likewise plays dual roles strongly—both as the independent musician who is simultaneously repelled and attracted by Peter Venkman’s overtures, and as possessed by the…erm…extremely sexually agressive Zuul.

Visually, the movie is BIG. There are great practical, animation and optical effects on display throughout. The sets are amazing, ranging from the humble firehouse location to the climactic skyscraper rooftop extravaganza designed for Gozer’s arrival. Miniature work and puppetry are handled expertly. The cinematography by László Kovács (veteran of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND [1977] and THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES [1964]) is gorgeous.

A haunted supersized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizes Manhattan in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

And then, we have to mention the soundtrack. Not only is the score by Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD [1962]) among his best, Ray Parker, Jr.’s title song has proven to be as endlessly quotable as the movie itself. Even if you’ve never seen the movie (and I’m speaking to all 12 of you who haven’t), you likely recognize “Who you gonna call?” and “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” instantly.

What I’m trying to say, people, is that this is one of those nearly perfect comedies. The whole thing works like, well, gangbusters. It’s constantly fun, consistently hilarious and incredibly engaging. There’s not a down moment in the movie, not a minute where it lags. If it’s not a Grand Statement by one of cinema’s great auteurs, it’s a masterfully-crafted piece of pop entertainment.

And sometimes, that’s all that’s called for.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Wanna Date? Let Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Set You Up With FRANKENHOOKER!

Posted on: Feb 8th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents FRANKENHOOKER (1990); Dir. Frank Henenlotter; Starring Patty Mullen and James Lorinz; Tuesday, Feb. 12 @ 9:30 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

“If you only see one movie this year, it should be FRANKENHOOKER.” – Bill Murray

And just who do you think you are to argue with Bill Murray? Thankfully, Splatter Cinema and Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre have joined forces to make this easy for you. Heck, the Splatter folks even filmed an exclusive interview with star Patty Mullen at last weekend’s Days of the Dead convention to sweeten the deal.

Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), lowly employee at New Jersey Electric and erstwhile mad scientist, has a problem. His beloved fiancée Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) has just been dismembered in a freak lawnmower accident, and he was only able to retrieve the head. He’s got the means to bring her back, but since her body is missing, why not spring for some upgrades? Armed with an explosive batch of crack, he starts to collect choice parts from NYC’s hookers, but what happens when Elizabeth wakes up and starts looking for tricks on 42nd Avenue? Can Jeffrey win back his blushing bride-to-be?

Few people on this planet are as devoted to the form and function of the grindhouse era as director Frank Henenlotter. Beyond capturing and preserving the pre-Disneyfication of Times Square in the classic BASKET CASE, he has long been associated with Something Weird Video, rescuing classic exploitation films from destruction and presenting many of them in the “Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers” series. In FRANKENHOOKER, he returns to the seedy side of New York City, but this time sees it being decimated by the crack epidemic.

Not that FRANKENHOOKER is some preachy vehicle, mind you. Like in Henenlotter’s previous film BRAIN DAMAGE, the subtext of drug abuse is present and slyly addressed, but this time—as opposed to the more serious-minded BRAIN DAMAGE— the emphasis is fully on sleaze and gore so over-the-top as to be hilarious. And as always, that’s why we love Frank.

Patty Mullen walks Times Square as FRANKENHOOKER (1990).

Now, a lot can be said for Henenlotter’s visual style, which he has always managed to pull off without the benefit of any kind of real budget. For instance, his use of lighting and color is consistently well-thought-out and effective, and his ability to shoot effects that both maximize their impact and mask their cheapness is almost unmatched. The fact that FRANKENHOOKER was a larger-budgeted film didn’t lead to him getting lazy on this shoot; it only makes the film look that much more expensive than it was. But his real talent has always been his ability to pull unexpectedly great performances out of unlikely suspects. In BASKET CASE, it’s Kevin Van Hentenryck as Duane Bradley. In FRANKENHOOKER, it’s former Penthouse Pet of the Year Patty Mullen. Previously only seen in the abysmal DOOM ASYLUM and a couple of bit parts on TV, Mullen turns in a brilliant comedic performance as the undead patchwork prostitute. She’s completely believable as the sweet Elizabeth (pre-lawnmower death) and her shift into the gratingly aggressive “Frankenhooker” persona, accompanied by completely insane facial mugging, is something of a triumph for someone who is essentially a non-actor. It’s a shame that this is her final film to date, as she’s just an incredibly likeable presence throughout. Co-star James Lorinz has always been a weak link for me in this movie, coming across as a poor man’s Andrew McCarthy, but in recent years I’ve warmed up to his overacting, twitchy presence and incessant ad-libbing. It’s not that he’s bad; he’s just completely overshadowed by Mullen.

Henenlotter has peppered the film with familiar faces as well. Louise Lasser (MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN) appears as Jeffrey’s mom, pioneering TV horror host Zacherley shows up as a weatherman, and cameos also go to Henenlotter regular Beverly Bonner and the legendary Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, THE DEER HUNTER, SEVEN BEAUTIES, PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE).

The screenplay by Frank and FANGORIA founding editor Bob Martin (who wrote the novelization of BRAIN DAMAGE) is constantly amusing, mixing references to FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE with clever spoofs of local news and late-night talk shows. It’s quite probably the best screenplay that Henenlotter has ever had to work with. BRAIN DAMAGE is a more cerebral work (pun intended), but FRANKENHOOKER is more flat-out entertaining.

So join Splatter Cinema in sharing Frank Henenlotter’s love for grindhouse cinema in the only surviving theater in Atlanta that once served as a grindhouse: the Plaza.

Bill Murray demands it.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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This Week in Retro Atlanta Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2011

Posted on: Jan 31st, 2011 By:

OK, get ready, get set for the second week of ATLRetro’s top picks of things to do this week. In some ways, it’s a pretty quiet one, especially for anyone looking to swing back to the ‘50s, or all the kool kats could just be lying low before a big Valentine week next week. But remember we’re just getting started, so if you know of a cool happening we’ve missed, send suggestions to ATLRetro@gmail.com.

Monday Jan. 31

On a budget? Catch a free performance by Austin rocker extraordinaire Alejandro Escovedo at Decatur CD. And what’s more retro than a beer named Vinyl? The micro-brew by Magic Hat Brewing Co. is on tap, and according to them, it’s “a scrumptious spring lager that sails in on her shining wings as the spinning sun returns.” To say that spring is here two days before Groundhog Day may sound a tad optimistic despite the wonderful weekend weather, but ATLRetro thinks it sure sounds worth sipping. If the free show makes you want more, Escovedo plays the second of two nights of all ages gigs at Eddie’s Attic just a few blocks away tonight.

Read the rest of this entry »

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